This was originally published on August 5, 2011.

So, you find yourself in a senior position in a political party led by someone whom you basically regard as a madman. The majority of your colleagues privately agree with you but, unlike you, they don’t seem to think this is anything to really worry about. What do you do?

Most of us would probably decide it was time for some sort of career change, but not Malcolm Turnbull. He’s determined to stick it out. On Wednesday at the National Press Club, he had a go at explaining why — in the sort of allusions and coded language that the subject matter requires.

Nominally Turnbull was there to talk about the Coalition’s broadband policy, but journalists were much more interested in the internal affairs of the Liberal Party — armed with an Essential Media poll showing Turnbull with significant support as a potential ALP leader and a column last week by ad man Rowan Dean arguing such a move would be “a sound business decision” for Labor.

The poll, of course, is largely meaningless. Most of Turnbull’s support came from Coalition voters; asked to imagine that they “were able to choose any politician to be leader of the Labor Party”, it’s hardly surprising that a fair number of them (17%) picked the only Liberal on the list. Among Labor voters his support was only 6%, equal to Stephen Smith. (Essential Media probably shouldn’t be blamed for this inanity — apparently the question was commissioned by Channel Ten.)

But it gave Turnbull the opportunity to say some interesting things about what he’s doing in politics:

“You don’t win elections by persuading your most devoted supporters to cast a vote for you, with even more enthusiasm than they did at the last election. You win elections by persuading people who didn’t vote for you at the last election to vote for you. If you say … there’s a lot of Labor voters who like Malcolm Turnbull, well that’s good, because that means I’m more likely to hold my seat or increase my majority than I would if the case were otherwise.”

Riding high in the polls, the majority of Turnbull’s colleagues clearly have no desire to rock the boat by questioning Tony Abbott’s leadership.

Nor, having made electoral hay with Abbott’s crypto-denialism on climate change, are they going to respond to Turnbull’s passionate defence of science.

So could Turnbull take his centrist views elsewhere? Could he join Labor, or try to stake out a middle course between the parties as Don Chipp did many years ago with the Australian Democrats?

One hesitates to rule out the possibility completely, but the odds are heavily against such a move. One reason is that he is already seen as something of a turncoat, having flirted with Labor before entering parliament. Switching sides a second time is always much more fraught (although Winston Churchill, for example, managed it).

But more important is the fact that he still sees his position in the Liberal Party as fundamentally strong. Abbott is not a popular leader; the majority in the party room in 2009 clearly preferred Joe Hockey, and even when Hockey was eliminated Turnbull only lost by one vote. The left may be marginalised for now, but its prospects don’t have the hopelessness that Chipp sensed in the late 1970s.

So why does Abbott go without challenge? Michelle Grattan in today’s Age makes an attempt to answer that question, but fails because (like many others) she is in denial about the Liberal Party’s factionalism; she persists in looking for policy issues to explain where people belong.

No one would make that mistake when it came to the ALP — no one puzzles about which issue to use as the defining characteristic of Labor’s left or right factions. It’s obvious that those groups are primarily about power; that they have an institutional presence that holds them together, and although there are certain similarities of policy outlook within each, they are vague and overlapping.

The same, in somewhat fuzzier fashion, is true in the Liberal Party. Its left is a bunch of people who for a variety of personal reasons have found themselves working together. Policy is part of the mix, but much less so than most of them would want to admit. It’s a tribal thing; policy differences alone aren’t likely to ever prompt them to revolt.

Turnbull, with his intellectual curiosity, is an outlier.

And it’s not as if Chipp had a particularly fulfilling career after leaving the Liberals. The Democrats scored some important successes, but leading them was a lot like herding cats and they never attracted more than a fraction of the moderate middle-class support that Chipp must have hoped for. Most of the Liberal Party left stayed put, just as Hockey, Pyne and Hunt would do now. Power, not principle, is their lodestar.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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